Sunday 30 October 2016

The Waxwings Are Coming!

A big gap on my Axe patch list is Waxwing. During the two last decent influxes (2010/2011 and 2012/2013) there were a handful of patch records. A few of the local birders have seen them here (Phil, Gav and James Mc) but these were all brief sightings and weren't twitchable. There have been some lingering birds, but the local birding network didn't learn of these until after the event.  This winter though I am hopeful that I will be taking a photo here that looks something like this...

Ok, maybe not quite so many birds but I am confident of at least one!  And why? Well considering it is still only October, there are heaps and heaps already arriving in to the UK. Some years there can be just the odd one or two in the whole of the UK prior to Christmas, but there is already a flock of 220 in Scotland! And they have already been seen as far west as Bardsey Island (Wales) and Christchurch Harbour (Dorset). Chances are we won't get a sniff down here until after the New Year when they've eaten all the berries between here and the east coast, but boy is it looking promising... 

I had an hour our birding this morning before work, and was delighted to find another Yellow-browed Warbler, this one at Lower Bruckland Ponds. Unlike my last, pleasingly this one remained for others to see.  Amazingly there were two more on patch today as well, with the bird found by Twilight Tim at Black Hole Marsh on Friday still present, along with a new bird at the bottom of Stepp's Lane, Axmouth, found by James Mc.

Maybe it is now time for the south coast to shine after the east coast has enjoyed all the glory.

Friday 28 October 2016

Not Another Petition

Being a frequent user of social media, on a daily basis my timelines and feeds are littered with random life quotes, phrases and shocking pictures that have been shared by someone I follow. Well I generally ignore these, but one that I first saw many many years ago has really stuck with me. Personally I think it perfectly encapsulates what is wrong with the world today, and the mentality of many of the people living on it..

Here's some facts for you; 

1,109 species of Flora and Fauna are considered to be at risk of extinction in the UK (State of Nature Report 2016).

On 5th October 2016 the first species of bees were added to the Endangered Species List (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Bees are the single most important animal species when it comes to producing fruits and vegetables, and it is thought humans would become extinct eight years after bees.

8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans every year, and it is feared than by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish (Plastic Ocean Foundation). 

Roughly 2.47 million trees are cut down every day across the world, that's 900 million trees a year (US Environmental Protection Agency). An oak tree absorbs on average 50 gallons of water per day and an acre of trees absorbs enough CO2 over one year to equal the amount produced by driving a car 26,000 miles (Arbor Environmental Alliance).

More than 25 million birds are illegally killed in the Mediterranean region every year (Birdlife International).

Like many other like minded individuals, I try and do my bit. I have written to my MP, to Number 10, I'm a member of many conservation charities, have supported conservation work with both money and time, and have signed countless petitions. But despite this, and all the sterling work carried out by numerous committed individuals and charities/organisations, ALL of the above points still stand.  

I will sign any petition that is for preserving our wildlife, but what good do they actually do?  Raptors are still disappearing on grouse moors with no or little consequences for the offenders, Buzzards are still being culled to protect non-native Pheasants (which will be shot anyway!), the UK Badger cull continues (despite what the scientists say), etc... It's (in general) the same old story, the petitions get signed, they are discussed by one or two half asleep MP's in the House of Commons who have no real knowledge of the subject, and then nothing happens...

So sitting here and slightly freaking out about what's happening to our wildlife and our world, I wonder what we can actually do to help?  All the above efforts can make a difference, but probably only in the short-term or on a local scale, they aren't enough to stop the general trends and ultimately this destruction of this planet, we need a much bigger change. We need to do something so much more important than signing any petition or writing a letter, we need to show the people who have the power, the money and the land, that wildlife and the natural environment is VITAL to everything and everyone.  Money always seems to be the number one priority for businesses and governments, with wildlife way down the bottom of the list. The natural world always needs to be top, because without it, there would be no world at all.

Personally I think us conservationist/birders/naturalists can be guilty of being too close minded and sometimes a little naive. Why would someone who has no interest in birds care that Turtle Doves have declined in the UK by 91% since 1995?  They are just Pigeons. Or why would the cash strapped farmer struggling to make a living not remove all the hedges on his farm to increase his crop yield and improve his tight profit margin?  

I think the task at hand is more of a re-educating one.  And maybe we should stop pushing for action on single species and try a far more general approach.   We need to highlight the importance of having a healthy environment around us with a rich biodiversity, and ALL the good nature does for us. The question is though, how?

One tactic has to be to try and engage and excite people who don't currently have a connection with the natural world.  With Autumwatch gracing our TV screens this week, it's sadly inevitable that on social media I see many wildlife experts mocking it and its presenters (well two of them anyway!).  Hang on, that's not right - we need to be thinking about the bigger picture. Much of the content may well be extremely basic for their intellect, and they may have greater knowledge than some of the presenters, but is there a better tool than this programme to engage and excite people who may otherwise not think about our wildlife?  Why mock such a potentially vital tool, and if we don't watch it we may lose it.  On Wednesday they had an absolutely fantastic piece on about Hen Harriers (or the lack of them!). Even if just one person who wasn't aware of this problem now is, and sympathises with the Hen Harriers, then that's job done if you ask me. And who knows who that one person may be?

We (the tree huggers!) are often perceived as party poopers, and a bunch of grumps worrying too much, so I think we should be careful not to encourage these opinions. Let's try and be more positive, despite the worrying outlook for our world. People are far more likely to listen to uplifting and engaging talk than downbeat doom and gloom.

I wish I had more answers to be honest, but if all I have done is inspired you to give it a bit of thought, then I am happy I have taken the time to write this blog post...

Thursday 27 October 2016

Short-eared Owl

Beer Head was really the only place to go this morning, with the river valley yet again hidden under a blanket of fog...

There was very little moving up here this morning sadly, and only really Goldcrests and a couple of Stonechats in/on the bushes...

A nice highlight though was my third ever Short-eared Owl for the Head, which flew in off the sea west of the Lookout and off west just after 08:30...

Just proves that even on the quiet days it is worth going out. You just never know.

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Fog It

The weather has not been too kind to us so far this week. Monday was a complete wash out, Tuesday we were fogged out for most of the day, and even today there was still a layer of fog in the valley at dawn - although at least this morning the higher ground was clear...

The river valley from Beer Head

There has been a few scarcities about though. The Canada Goose flock on Colyford Marsh continues to host a Barnacle Goose, and since Monday a first-winter Dark-bellied Brent Goose too. Have seen up to 14 Dunlin on the river, with three Grey Plover still, a Knot and yesterday Dad had an Avocet on Black Hole Marsh. Gull numbers are low but with the Black-heads I've seen two Med Gulls recently (an ad and a first-winter). Also yesterday, I came across my first patch Black Redstart of the autumn, a nice first-winter male at Axmouth Yacht Club.

The trees and bushes are certainly harboring more Goldcrests than the last few weeks, but Chiffchaffs have suddenly become harder to find. It looks like they've all grouped together at the traditional sites (Lower Bruckland Ponds, Seaton Marshes) and are less evenly distributed.  There was quite an amazing sight yesterday as up to 3000 Starling were feeding on flying insects in the river valley - I spent ages checking through them but it wasn't easy! Quite a spectacle though.

This morning Beer Head did feel quite good, it was definitely the best morning so far this autumn for Chaffinch passage, but with the light winds they were flying in all directions and many were really high so they were pretty much uncountable.  Not many other finches were going over though, and a Mistle Thrush, a Reed Bunting and two Lapwing were the only oddities. The bushes seemed overall quiet but there were clearly more Song Thrushes, Blackbirds and Robins about.

Weather looks good for the next few mornings, so let's see if I can uncover something nice like a Bluetail.  If I don't it won't be through lack of trying...

Sunday 23 October 2016

That's Birding

Irrespective of previous years, wow has my lack of Yellow-browed Warblers this year been frustrating!!  In other parts of Devon birders seem to be hearing/seeing them every time they step outside, they really have been turning up everywhere and anywhere!  Over the last few weeks I've been out every morning, and each morning headed out thinking 'well today will be the day'... wrong every time!  I reckon I've seen about 150 Chiffs in the last month, I bet there's not many other birders in the UK have seen that number of Chiffs this autumn without a single stripe!

Luckily though this birding malarkey is a funny old game.  This morning was the first morning in weeks that I've not been out birding.  After a bit of a lie in, a rummage through the cupboards showed the breakfast potential was low (very bad news in the Waite household!) so a jaunt to the corner shop was required.  Wandering back through the estate swinging my bag of goodies was already a joyous thing as I knew Pain Au Chocolat was imminent, but when a Yellow-browed Warbler started going berserk in front of me well that was the weekend made!

Amazingly it was in the same row of trees I found a bird in on 30th Oct last year (which stayed for a few days). I watched it at close quarters in some ivy as it called in a somewhat frenzied manner (about 8 or 9 calls in five or so seconds), before legging it home to drop off the shopping and grab my phone and camera.  I saw it a few more times on my return, but sadly couldn't manage a photo and it had completely shut up.  

Hopefully this signifies a change in fortune for me, so let's see what tomorrow brings...

Thursday 20 October 2016


Being a complete Goose nut, I am gutted to have (seemingly) missed yesterday's White-fronted Goose found by Dave Stone and Andy Bond.  And it's yet another species I've been expecting to come across during the last week (exceptional numbers on the east coast last week) but have missed out on completely due to work.  Just yesterday morning I said to James Mc that I've been expecting a grey goose or two with the Canada flock!

For quite a while White-fronted Goose was pretty much annual here, but presumably due to the recent milder winters and dwindling numbers at our nearest regular wintering site (WWT Slimbridge) records have dried right up.  My last on patch were in 2011, and I don't think I've missed any in the mean time.  The last one I saw here on 20th October 2011 was of the rarer Greenland race...

Greenland White-fronted Goose

My last Eurasian White-front wasn't long before that, on the unusual date of 20th May 2011...

Eurasian White-fronted Goose

Prior to this, one of my best ever grey goose experiences here was the fantastic flock of up to 15 Eurasian White-fronts that spent about a week with us back in February 2006...

What a sight!

I've not seen any photos of yesterday's bird, or been told what race it was - but due to the recent influx I'm presuming it was a Eurasian. Be good to know it's age too, adults are absolutely stunning birds in my opinion.

So what have I seen? Well the last two mornings up Beer Head I've been concentrating (even bringing my scope!) on this tasty looking stubble field...

Proof of my telescope on Beer Head!

There's always stacks of Linnets, Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails and House Sparrows here. Yesterday on top of that were three Reed Bunting, two Wheatear and a Yellowhammer.  This morning it was much quieter with nothing different.

Overhead at Beer Head, yesterday again was the busiest day with a fairly steady westward passage of Chaffinches, Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails, Skylarks and three Siskin. This morning just a couple of Siskin were among a much slower passage, but a Golden Plover was nice to see whizzing around...

Golden Plover

I thought this morning was going to better than it was, as for the first time in over a week there were Redwing around my house at dawn.  There's been lots of Song Thrush about lately, but apart from an early wave several weeks back, the winter thrushes haven't arrived here yet.

Monday 17 October 2016

Gulls Save The Day

This morning was a bit of a nothing morning when it came to birds. I was dog-sitting so spent the morning walking around Colyton and Axmouth with two Golden Retrievers. I could well have been pulled past a few silent goodies, but there were certainly no vocal Yellow-broweds where I walked. Cannot believe I still haven't seen one this autumn! 

This afternoon was much better though, with the highlight being a gorgeous juv Little Gull on Colyford scrape mid afternoon. Sadly it was too distant for pics but what an absolute joy to see - such a teeny weeny dark little thing. And my first patch Little Gull since February 2014 so very much appreciated. Also on the Estuary was this hefty adult Yellow-legged Gull, presumably the same bird that I saw on Saturday afternoon, as I also saw it yesterday morning on the flood water at Colyford Marsh.

Middle bird with head tilted up

Second from right, this photo shows mantle colour, leg length and overall size well

Also on Colyford Marsh and the Estuary this afternoon; two Shoveler, the Barnacle Goose, two Grey Plover, one Bar-tailed Godwit and nine Dunlin.

Not quite the east coast, but hopefully the south west will shine soon..

Saturday 15 October 2016

A Good Day On Patch

First of all, I must just thank everyone who's phoned/texted/emailed/commented/tweeted/facebooked me regarding the Nikon video. Hopefully I have got back to everyone, but your kind comments really do mean a lot. It will be interesting to see what this all leads too.

And now to the patch, and today is the first time in what seems a long long time (well the whole of this autumn!) that I feel like I've had a good day on patch. A really good day.  Although the rares I am so yearning for never came, or a Yellow-browed still, I have seen a really nice and varied selection of notable birds.  And this is how, where and when...

Black Hole Marsh for half an hour from dawn didn't show anything new, but everything that's been around was here and I noted;

65 Canada Goose
1 Barnacle Goose
3 Water Rail
2 Grey Plover
5 Dunlin
1 Curlew Sandpiper
1 Little Stint (not the pale bird from a few days ago, a new juv)
1 Ruff
1 Common Sandpiper

I know many of you would have sighed at reading Barnacle Goose in that list, but it was the first time I have seen it at such close quarters, although I wouldn't be surprised if it roosts on Black Hole Marsh every night with the Canada flock. Whatever it's origin, there's no doubt over how smart (and cute!) it is...

Beer Head after this was disappointing bird-wise (just a few Chiffs and Goldcrest, a few more Robins and Song Thrush but very little overhead), as was a walk from here to Branscombe and back with Jess and Honey late morning to mid afternoon.

A mid afternoon whistle stop tour of the Estuary was much better though, as the gull flock at the top end of the river included two Yellow-legged Gulls. Both were distant from where I was viewing, but easy to pick out nonetheless. October is the best month of the year for non first-year Yellow-legged Gulls on the Axe by a mile, a good blow usually produces a few (plus the odd Caspian Gull).

You can't see much detail on the adult Yellow-legged Gull in this photo, but you can see it's large size and heavy build, yellow legs (they were brighter than they appear in this dull photo), darker grey mantle (if you look VERY closely!) and almost clean white head.

The above second-winter Yellow-legged Gull (right in the middle of the picture) was an absolute beast. The mantle colour was a bit darker than this photo suggests, but look how big it is - and it was so long winged! Typical moult stage for a second-winter (lots of grey) and the head area looked perfect with that grey smudging around the back and sides of the neck.  This photo shows the mantle colour better...

And then this evening, the cherry on top - and what a cherry it was!  Twilight Tim has seen a Turtle Dove a couple of times in the Colyford area over the last week and a bit, but it's not been pinned down. I was at the Bridge Marsh gateway, and after checking the Egrets and ducks on the marsh, I almost didn't notice the brown lump next to me as I was walking back to my car...

I'm so glad I did! At first it was raining, so the poor thing looked a bit bedraggled...

But eventually the sun peaked through the clouds allowing it to dry up...

What a bird, and as you can see showing ridiculously well! Only my second ever on patch following my overdue patch first on 13th May 2012.  It remained here for about 25 minutes, allowing six others to get to see it which was nice -  always nice to share a good bird.  As can be seen from my pics it's a first-year bird with a mixture of juvenile (plain dull orange-brown) and adult (bright orange and black) feathers. I wonder if this is the last one I will ever see on patch though?

So nice to finally have a decent day here - lets hope the rares start flowing now...

Monday 10 October 2016

The Wait Is Over

Do you remember my jaunt to Slovenia with Nikon back in July? Well I am delighted to finally be able to post the results of this once in a lifetime experience, I hope you enjoy...

It was an absolutely incredible thing to do, and was much more than just making an advert about binoculars, there was so much focus on my personal journey as a birder and what makes me tick. A real privilege to take part in. Thank you so much Nikon and to all the crew out in Slovenia. It's an incredible country and I cannot wait to go back.

Sunday 9 October 2016

Ring Ouzels

When a load of Ring Ouzels come into the UK, you can usually count on the 'Avian Black Hole' to produce a few for us, and sure enough yesterday afternoon two or three were seen in the Underhooken at Beer Head. This morning the clear skies, the prospect of some Ouzel action and the possibility of some good vis mig saw me at Beer Head just after dawn... 

Two hours up here produced;

2+ Ring Ouzel (probably 4+)
6 Blackbird
6 Song Thrush 
2 Redwing
2 Wheatear
2 Stonechat
9 Skylark
60+ Meadow Pipit
10 alba Wagtail
1 Grey Wagtail 
8 Blackcap
20+ Chiffchaff
1 Goldcrest 
40+ Linnet
20 Goldfinch
2 Siskin

So as can be seen from the finch counts, visible migration was really disappointing considering the conditions. In fact the top of the headland where we usually find our birds was really quiet too (except for Mipits), all the action was on the scrub covered slope down to the Underhooken. All but two of the 20+ Chiffs were here, I was so expecting a Yellow-browed to filter through with them but it just didn't happen.  Of course this was also where the Ring Ouzels were, and these two I saw pretty well...

I'm fairly certain this is a first-winter female (along with a male Blackbird) due to no hint at all of a  pale breast crescent.

Not a great photo, but the clean white breast crescent makes this is a male. It had quite a dirty looking bill with little yellow so I'm pretty sure it was also a first-winter bird.

I had so many more glimpses of Ring Ouzels, and heard quite a bit of calling too, my feeling is there were 4-5 birds down there but I just couldn't prove more than the above two. At one stage I had a bird calling way off to the right where I didn't see any of my two go, but I only had the female in view at the time.

A quick look at Seaton Hole afterwards showed another ten Chiffchaffs, but lots of walking around the patch this afternoon has still failed to give me a Yellow-browed. And there were what 10+ on Portland today!? So I have to say I'm feeling a bit like how this Wheatear looked on Beer Head early this morning...

Oh well, must keep at it...

Saturday 8 October 2016

Tough Luck

I like to think I am an upbeat and positive chap but I've spent more time than ever out on patch this autumn, walked further than ever, with better optics, yet have seen/found less rare or scarce birds than any previous autumn! As a result I'm starting to feel a bit like this...

I am trying my hardest to work though it, heading out the door at dawn every morning to go birding, and I know all birders go through lean times - this though is without doubt my worst.  Usually it's quite a simple formula, the more time spent in the field the more you see and the more times you 'get lucky'. Sadly this is far from the truth for me at the moment.

Let's take Yellow-browed Warblers for example. I have always had good fortune when it comes to finding striped phylloscs on patch, I've found nine Yellow-broweds here, along with the only patch records of Pallas's and Hume's - but I cannot for the life of me find one this year!  They are everywhere else, and I have seen so so many Chiffchaffs and tit flocks. But not one stripe. Thankfully there's still plenty of time for this to change.

As for Great White Egrets, given that there has been an irruption (as apposed to an influx) recently, I have been expecting to bump into one or two at some point during last week. My birding week finished at 2pm on Friday as I was working at 3pm, and I had checked the valley probably 10-15 times during the week. Just after 5pm Friday 'Twilight Tim' wanders down to Black Hole and low and behold there's a Great White Egret flying around!

I really could go on (like how I've been at Black Hole Marsh 3-4 dawns per week all September hoping for a Crake or yank wader - or failing on Ortolan and Wryneck finding all Sept) but I wont. So let me talk about what I have managed to see.

Well yesterday, as well as 26 Chiffchaffs spread out everywhere, 15 mins in the Tower Hide early afternoon showed my first Med Gull (an ad) for over a month, a first-winter Common Gull, a female Pintail, the lingering Grey Plover and three Ringed Plover.  

Today, four Redwing were the best Lower Bruckland Ponds had to offer, and Black Hole Marsh this afternoon showed a late Little Stint and two Pintail.  The Little Stint was interesting as late autumn birds aren't that regular here. I am used to seeing fresh juvs in Aug/Sept, but this bird was well into winter plumage so really pale looking. Overall size and shape, the pattern of the black on the lower scapulars and coverts, split supercillia and lack of webbing between the toes were all the features noted to confirm ID - not that any of those features (except for overall shape) are visible in this pic...

Don't worry though folks - I'll be out looking in the morning and let's just hope my next blog post is titled 'A Change In Fortune'...

Thursday 6 October 2016

An Avian Black Hole

A word you won't read very often on any of the Axe patch birders blogs is the word Undercliff. We tend to pretend it doesn't exist.

Roughly 2/3rds of the coast line of our patch is completely unbirdable. Which is a right royal pain in the butt.  Underneath all our large cliffs is a deep and dense jungle of trees, shrubs and bushes that you can barely get among, and even if you do find yourself on one of the few paths through it, you can basically only see what is right next to you. 

East of the Axe it is known as the Undercliff. Below Beer Head and to Branscombe it is called the Underhooken. I call it the Axe Avian Black Hole.

The Underhooken this morning

I honestly think this is the reason why there are no Hippolais or rare Sylvia Warblers on the patch list, and could well be why we have only seen one Long-eared Owl in the last 30+ years!  The rarest bird ever seen in any of the Undercliff was the Beer Head Iberian Chiffchaff on 28th April 2007. I was only able to find that because it was right on the upper edge of the Underhooken and was audible and (very briefly!) viewable from the top of Beer Head.

The only scarce species its seem to be good for us for is Ring Ouzel, and that's simply because they are big enough to see from a distance. They can be flipping elusive though and often disappear for hours at a time.

So our Undercliffs are probably fantastic for birds (the amount of Blackcap song from down there in spring is amazing!) but completely pants for birding. This strong easterly wind though has proved hard work to bird in, and seeing as it edged a little more north east this morning, I did what I haven't done for about five years - I went in...


And what a waste of time it was. One Stonechat and one Chiffchaff was the 'highlight' of the mile walk through all this lush and sheltered habitat from Branscombe to Beer Head. It's a bloody hard path too, one minute you are right next to the beach...

And then you are massively high up...

And the amount of these really don't help, they make it so much more painful...

So although I saw nothing today, I'm glad I tried something different this morning. Before I descended into the jungle, the best on top of Beer Head was a moderate visible migration, just Meadow Pipits, alba Wagtails, Swallows, House Martins, Goldfinches and Linnets though.  All were flying east tight against the cliff edge.

In my previous post I predicted my first Redwings weren't far away, and I was right! Unusually they were day time ones too which was nice. I had seven (a flock of five and two singles) fly low east during a short dog walk around where I live yesterday morning. I also noted ten Song Thrush during the same wander so yesterday was clearly something of a thrush day. There had also clearly been an arrival of Chiffchaffs too as I saw a good handful at all the places I visited during the morning. Still no stripey ones though.

I should also mention the lone Barnacle Goose with the Canada Geese on Colyford Marsh on Tuesday afternoon, I found it during a quick pre-work tour of the Estuary.  Although there has been an arrival of 'Barnies' in the north over the last few days, the chances are it was in fact this bird;

Right I'm probably going to head out again in a minute. Not sure where I'll be going, although I certainly know where I won't be going...

Tuesday 4 October 2016

October Dawns

A gorgeous sunrise this morning, this was the view from my bedroom window...

Birding-wise, autumn has moved on some more, with a noticeable increase in Song Thrush, Robin and Goldcrest numbers over the last few days.  The wading bird situation is still a bit samey, with Black Hole Marsh this morning showing;

1 Grey Plover
16 Dunlin
77 Redshank
2 Bar-tailed Godwit
1 Common Sandpiper

We've had a Yelow-browed Warbler too, at the weekend.  Colyford resident Peter Vernon was quick with his camera when he spotted a small crest/warbler in his garden on Saturday, through a steamed up kitchen window...

(c) Peter Vernon
(c) Peter Vernon

Well done Peter! Hopefully there will be many more to come.

Yesterday Axe Cliff was completely blown out, but there were stacks of Meadow Pipits and Skylarks about, with a Siskin and a couple of Reed Bunting over the only slight oddities. A couple of Ringed Plover were on the beach, but the wader situation on the Estuary was exactly the same as this morning.

Although this wind looks like it is going to be too strong for the rest of this week to really get amongst it, considering the amount of birds arriving on the east coast and the northern isles at the moment we should be in for a good few weeks. I imagine my first Redwings are just a few days (or nights) away.

Hopefully October turns out to be more fruitful than September was...